Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bully-Proofing Our Kids

Bullying.  We hear about it a lot these days.  But today’s bully isn’t the big, burly boy on the playground shouting, “Cooties!” and looting lunches.  Today’s bully comes in a much more furtive form – often a skirt and pigtails.  Turns out sugar and spice and everything nice isn’t always what little girls are made of.  Girl bullies are common, covert, and too often cruel.  As a middle school teacher, I can’t count the number of times I’ve consoled sobbing girls who have been victimized by insidious, socially paralyzing tactics: “So-and-so called me a (four-letter word for promiscuous), told me I get my clothes at Goodwill, created a I-Hate-(Facebook) Page about me.”  And the list goes on….With the Internet as the perfect, covert dispatching medium, the Mean Girl Renaissance is in full swing. 

Alas, the indisputable truth is both girls and boys bully and the emotional scars can last a lifetime. So why are kids so mean and what is the answer?  I maintain that empathy is the biggest defense against bullying.  We need to educate our students at a young age that being mean to others is not just part of growing up, is not normal, and is not okay.  If empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another – is our preventative armor, then books can be our magic bullets.  By relating to fictional characters that are the underdog or being treated unfairly, students are given the tools to self-reflect: Am I being mean?  Am I hurting someone else’s feelings?  If I make fun of my neighbor’s shoes or hair, how will it really make them feel?  By analyzing character, we build character and create a common respectful classroom culture in the interim. 

But bully-proofing our children isn’t just a school issue.  Parents can help by discussing bullying with their child at an early age and implementing the following strategies:

Teach bully-prevention at home by reinforcing the values of kindness and manners.  Discourage pinching, biting, or hitting other children, even among siblings.  Develop a strong sense of self, as kids with low self-esteem are less likely to stick up for someone who is being bullied, including themselves.  Encourage courageous behavior by modeling how to stand up for oneself when confronted by a bully.  A great way to do this is to role-play scenarios as a family. 

Know the telltale bully victim warning signs, which include a sudden loss of interest in school, insomnia, depression, loss of appetite, physical signs like unexplained scratches or scrapes, complaints of frequent headaches and stomachaches, and having few or no friends.  Be proactive in asking questions about your child’s social life, such as whom they hang out with or sit by at lunch or on the bus.

If there are strong indicators that your child is being bullied, comfort them and implement the following course of action:

·   *   Ignore: Advise your child to avoid the bully by walking away and ignoring him/her.  Act brave.  Suggest they always walk with a friend to avoid being seen alone.  If the bully approaches, don’t react.  After all, a reaction is what the bully is looking for.  When they don’t get one, the bully will most likely get bored and stop.  Another strategy is to count to ten, smile, or laugh it off. 

·     * Confront: Encourage your child to look the bully in the eye and say this sentence: “Please stop.  I don’t like what you are doing.  It’s mean.”

·      *Report: Most bullying occurs on school grounds.  Tell your child to report the confrontation to a school official, such as a teacher, counselor, administrator, or aide and then conduct a parental follow up.  Be an anti-bullying advocate by forming a parent group or join the PTA to discuss strategies for the school.  Volunteer to start a school safety committee. 

Bullying is front-page news and a serious problem for the individual child, family, and community.  It impacts everyone.  Kids who are bullied are more likely to suffer inferiority complexes and depression.  They are more likely to drop out of school, have drug and alcohol problems, and break the law.  Sometimes they take extreme measures, which can lead to tragic results as seen in the Columbine shootings or the frequent incidents of bullicide.  It’s all of society’s problem, as it affects every one of us.  Although bullying is pervasive, it can be thwarted by educating our children with this simple creed: Bullying is not okay – not ever. 

Let the prevention begin.  Let the healing begin. 

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